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NASA's Pluto rocket damaged by Wilma

A Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket being prepared to launch NASA's first probe to Pluto was slightly damaged by Hurricane Wilma, officials said on Friday.
/ Source: Reuters

A Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket being prepared to launch NASA's first probe to Pluto was slightly damaged when Hurricane Wilma cut a swath through Florida but should still be able to launch as planned, officials said on Friday.

The 200-foot (61-metre) tall rocket was standing vertically inside its assembly hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station when Wilma blasted through on Monday, bringing wind gusts up to 76 mph (122 kph) to the spaceport on Florida's Atlantic coast.

The hangar's rolling door, which is made of a cloth material designed to withstand winds of 145 mph (233 kph), failed, causing what appears to be minor damage to the rocket and ground support equipment, said Lockheed Martin Corp. spokeswoman Julie Andrews.

"We're pretty confident this isn't going to be a reason to hold up the launch," she added.

Inspection teams were assessing the damage on Friday.

The New Horizons spacecraft, set to launch on Jan. 11 on a decade-long voyage to Pluto, was encased in its shipping container at a processing facility during the storm.

The probe contains 24 pounds of plutonium pellets, which will provide power through radioactive decay. As Pluto is 50 times farther from the sun than Earth, solar power is not a viable option for the spacecraft.

New Horizons was scheduled to be taken to the Atlas 5 launch pad at Cape Canaveral in December, said the project's principal investigator, Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

NASA has until Feb. 14 to launch the probe, which needs to fly around Jupiter in February or March of 2007 for a gravitational boost to reach Pluto and its moon Charon in July 2015.

With seven science instruments, including three cameras, New Horizons is expected to provide the first close-up views of a planetary body that is neither terrestrial in nature, like Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, nor a gas giant, such as Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus.

Pluto and Charon are Kuiper Belt Objects, a huge collection of frozen worlds that reside in the far reaches of the solar system. Kuiper Belt Objects have never been exposed to the higher temperatures and radiation levels of the inner solar system and are the focus of interest among researchers seeking information about the original conditions of the solar system.